Blanks in the ANC’s January 8th message

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You’d never know it at a glance, but the future of the ANC is once more at stake. The upcoming local government elections could trigger another breakup of the party saddled with corruption, factionalism, and a lack of decisive leadership. And yet the party leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, barely mentioned any practical measures to excise corrupt individuals from the party and government when he delivered the January 08 statement at the party’s 108 birthday celebrations held at the Tafel-Lager Park stadium in Kimberley last Saturday.

I was curious for details on how the ANC will continue to unite the country in the year ahead. However, the lack of details soon led to yet another disappointment in his style of leadership that is shy of confronting serious challenges facing the party and, by extension, the country at large.

Regrettably this conspiracy of inattention to details in Ramaphosa’s message ignores the looming existential challenges to the cohesion of the party and the country at a crucial time when South Africa faces an economic cliff that will soon cause the moment of reckoning. If we hurdle ourselves off the cliff under tip-toeing leadership, doing too much deficit reduction, too fast, and in the wrong ways, we will plunge the nation deeper into economic recession; whereas if we gamble by allowing narrow party interests to take precedence over national interests, we will surely endure further and serious downgrades by international rating agencies and quite possibly frighten credit markets into no longer favouring South Africa as an investment destination.

The net result is a black hole, not just in the ANC’s January 08 statement that is supposed to mobilise action across a broad spectrum of political allies, but in our politics in general where a unified nation is supposed to be. The worsening economic recession has accentuated threats to South Africa – along with many other wider problems in our politics – that were already gathering well before Ramaphosa assumed the leadership of the ANC and South Africa. His early days in offices raised hopes for a revival of a caring party and a caring government. Perhaps, as some political commentators have warned, the Ramaphoria excitement is fast turning into a disappointment to those who hoped for more than a repeat of lukewarm assurances to “build a movement united in action, by healing the divisions with our organisation and alliance and placing the interests of the people above all other interests.”

Be that as it may, in today’s ANC that turned 108 years, the opponents of that unity and placing the interests of the people above all other interests are now more articulate and more focused in what they do from Luthuli House than those in the Union Buildings and branches who want to rebuild the party and defend its declared plans and priorities for 2019 with credibility.

Many South Africans know by now that if those opposed to his candidature for party presidency regain party control at the coming national general council later this year, as they are working hard to do, they will claim a mandate to reformulate the party’s plans and priorities for the year ahead, and beyond.

The ever-present possibility that Ramaphosa might eventually cease to be the driving force in the ANC does not emerge from a cloudless sky. The party’s secretary-general, Ace Magashule, has been clear since the last party national conference that Ramaphosa’s influence in the ANC might not last, or extend beyond a single five-year term. Some individuals in the ANC with links to state patronage continue to revolt against Ramaphosa’s previous calls for clean government. All this has been in the news for months. Yet decisive steps to weed out corrupt individuals from the party’s cadre deployment lists form no part of the much-anticipated message.

There is hope that perhaps Ramaphosa’s leadership in dealing with political, social and economic challenges facing South Africa will improve in the coming weeks leading to the official opening of parliament. But don’t hold your breath, especially not on a level that remotely measures up to the seriousness of what may be so imminently at stake. In part, that is because the internal ANC battles dominate what happens in government so much that separation of party and state is disappearing in our politics. As so often, much of the ANC treats the rest of South Africa with what one might generously call a calculated and studied air of neglect. Right now, however, that habit of neglect is potentially lethal given the increasing state of polarization in our country’s politics which is likely to be magnified in the run-up to next year’s local government elections.

I was curious for details following a cursory mention of, among other things, renewal of the ANC as the most effective force for social change, preparations for a decisive local government mandate, strengthening governance and tackle corruption. But there was no discussion about the consequences of the ANC’s failure to decisively address outstanding problems and implement recommendations presented to its leadership over the past decade. These include the party inquiry into alleged irregularities in May 2011 local government elections candidate lists, the national government’s 2017 High-Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change, the KwaZulu-Natal’s government’s Moerane Commission on political violence in the province, as well as the numerous party internal reports pointing to internal politics and ultimately material greed as factors that perpetuate political killings.   

As a result, there is an extremely real possibility that, by next year’s local government elections, the ANC-led tripartite alliance as we know it will no longer exist. The South African Communist Party may by then have resolved to contest elections under its own manifesto. Many more ANC members may have resolved to ditch the party and contest as independent candidates. Sadly, many more lives may by then be lost because of escalating intra-party conflicts. But you would hardly know any of this from the January 08 statement. If none of the credible voices can demonstrate decisive leadership effectively for the betterment of all citizens in ways to which majorities in all sectors of the society can respond, then who else can? For without decisive leadership with believable voices to speak for a united approach to tackle the challenges we face, the republic, as we may be about to discover, could soon be past saving from sinking into political anarchy.


 Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a researcher, policy analyst and a human rights activist.